Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto: The Journal of Emmanuel Ringelblum (Notitsn Fun Vareshever Geto)

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Diary by Emmanuel Ringelblum, 1952

Because Emmanuel Ringelblum was himself a scholar and a historian, his Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto (1958; originally published in 1952 in Yiddish as Notitsn fun Vareshever geto ) is among the most informative of the Holocaust diaries. To be sure, the fact that it found its way to the light of day is truly remarkable. Before the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of April 1943, Ringelblum placed his notebooks in milk cans and buried them. What later became his Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto was retrieved in two parts, the first in September 1946 and the second in December 1950.

Taking up his pen, Ringelblum not only recorded a history of atrocity but also offered a testimony to the dearness of humanity. Children, for example, play a prominent role in his entries. In an entry for September 1940 he attested to the devotion of children to other children when he wrote, "At the funeral for the small children from the Wolska Street orphanage, the children from the home placed a wreath at the monument with the inscription: 'To the Children Who Have Died from Hunger—From the Children Who Are Hungry."' On 26 April 1941 he pointed out that "three-year-old children are out begging in the streets," and on 31 August 1941 he told of a six-year-old boy who lay on the street "gasping all night, too weak to roll over to the piece of bread that had been thrown to him" from a balcony. The reader soon realizes that this assault on the child was a defining feature of the ghetto. And Ringelblum was deeply aware of the implications. "In the past," he wrote on 10 June 1942, "whatever was done with the grownups, the children were always permitted to live—so that they might be converted to the Christian faith … But the Hitlerian beast is quite different. It would devour the dearest of us, those who arouse the greatest compassion—our innocent children." Ringelblum demonstrates that under the Nazis the thing most threatened was precisely the holiest thing.

Although he was not religious, Ringelblum was careful to take note of the explicit attack on the holy dimensions of Jewish being. He reported, for example, the desecration of Torah scrolls and observed that when the ghetto was established the Nazis tore the mezuzahs—the small containers of Scripture that remind a Jew of God's sovereignty—from the doorposts of Jewish apartments. As the High Holy Days of 1940 were approaching, he noted that "in one city they assembled all the rabbis and they were killed. " And early in 1942, he related, "a group of Jews were locked up in the synagogue until they hacked the holy ark to bits." The sign of Jewish tradition and teaching—the sign of a Jewish presence in the world—is the sign of the presence of the Holy One in the world. And that is precisely what the Nazis tried to erase from the world.

Here one discovers another remarkable dimension of Ringelblum's diary: his insight into the importance of meaning in life and the threat of madness in the assault on meaning. Early in his notes he observes a "noticeable increase in the number of madmen" in the ghetto, and the remainder of the diary is punctuated with references to madness and madmen as well as to mad children: "In a refugee center an eight-year-old child went mad. Screamed, 'I want to steal, I want to rob. I want to eat, I want to be a German."' If madness threatens one's humanity, Ringelblum shows that, in the effort to dehumanize the Jew, the Nazi lost his own humanity: "A police chief came to the apartment of a Jewish family, wanted to take some things away. The woman cried that she was a widow with a child. The chief said he'd take nothing if she could guess which of his eyes was the artificial one. She guessed the left eye. She was asked how she knew. 'Because that one,' she answered, 'has a human look."' The other eye, the human eye, resembled a dead eye.

This is one of the most earthshaking revelations in Ringelblum's diary: in their aim to exterminate the Jews from the world, the Nazis overturned the world to create a total confusion between life and death, leaving no place for either. In the universe of the concentration camps, the living were as though dead, and the dead were as though they had never lived.

—David Patterson